St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2019

Spotlight: Ole Author Gretchen Anthony

Although her love of words and familiarity with Lutheranism go back decades, it took getting laid off from a job in her 40s before Gretchen Anthony ’93 finally wrote the book that was always in her. Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners (Park Row Books, 2018) is a gently funny tale built around a series of Christmas letters and populated by familiar Minnesota eccentrics. Led by perfectionist matriarch Violet Baumgartner, stalwart member of Faithful Redeemer Lutheran Church, the story includes a disastrous retirement party, a successful church fair, a broken engagement, a pregnant gay couple, and plenty of other twists and turns. It has received accolades from Kirkus Reviews (“a stunning debut”), Publishers Weekly (“enjoyable debut … a complex portrait of a mother struggling to give up control over her daughter’s life”), PopSugar (Best Books of Fall 2018 selection), and GoodReads (“witty, sparkling debut novel”), and Anthony has visited Denver, Portland, Chicago, and other cities on her book tour.

I met Anthony in a coffee shop in Plymouth, Minnesota, not far from the Maple Grove home she shares with her husband, Chad, and their three sons, ages 16, 13, and 12.

What was your career path before becoming a novelist?

I majored in speech, attended graduate school in communications, and then worked in corporate communications for many years. My last job was as director of corporate communications for Famous Dave’s.

What sparked you to leave corporate communications and begin writing fiction?

I didn’t have anything more to achieve in that field. Also, I was no spring chicken: it was time to meet my longtime writing goals. Now I’m only writing fiction. Right now, I am frantically writing my second book, which is due in final manuscript form in early 2019.

What’s your next book about?

It’s a novel tentatively titled The Kids are Going to Ask, in which 17-year-old twins get caught up in a cultural firestorm after they launch a podcast to find their biological father. Like Evergreen, it’s set in the Twin Cities and has quirky characters all around! It’s set for publication in spring 2020.

Your deep knowledge of Lutheran church life suggests you are a longtime church member. True?

I’m a PK, man! My parents [Anne Romstad ’62 and the late Rev. Paul Romstad ’62] met at St. Olaf, and my brother is a fourth-generation Lutheran pastor. I was lucky to grow up with a dad who had a dynamic sense of humor — there was nothing he loved more than a good story, especially one he could steal and retell. It was all about laughter in our family. My dad died 12 years ago but while I was writing this book, I could feel him just behind my shoulder saying, “Go further, push it further” — especially the baptism scene. He would have gotten a big kick out of this book.

Is your mother anything like Violet Baumgartner? Or is Violet a composite of various intense Lutheran moms you have known?

Violet is definitely a composite. I told my mom straight out that she wasn’t Violet. But she did recognize some other people I might have modeled Violet on.

I know that as a family you always read Christmas letters aloud with great hilarity and that you and your brother write yearly missives. Did these experiences inspire the book?

Definitely. Every year we compete to see who can write the funnier letter. I’m on a personal mission to bring back the Christmas letter. But I have three rules for writing a great letter. One: the bottom-of-the-glass rule — that is, write nothing longer than your friends can read while drinking a single glass of beer. Two: The you-didn’t-shoot-JR rule. Nothing about you is so grand that you will ever stand out as much as the person who shot JR [a famous storyline on the 1980s TV show Dallas.] So, don’t brag. Also leave out the two pages about your tumor-removal surgery. No one wants to read that. Three: The get-over-yourself-and-be-real rule. Forget writing your letter in the voice of your dog or as an acrostic puzzle. And don’t be sanctimonious. No one likes a letter in which everyone is perfect.

So is it safe to say you disagree that Facebook has supplanted the family Christmas letter?

Even if all your friends use Facebook — and they don’t — we greatly overestimate what people absorb about our lives from social media. Also, Facebook is not as intimate or as real as a letter — and you can’t archive it.

Any final words?

I’m just meant to be doing this. I’m glad it took me this long to start because I got to experience a lot of other things along the way. But this — writing fiction — is where I was always meant to be.